#DesiBooksReview 4: Madhur Anand’s partitioned memoir uses science and poetry to explore the legacy of Partition in one family, across continents and generations

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Sangamithra Iyer is a writer, engineer, and environmental planner. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves by Madhur Anand | Penguin Random House, Canada | June 30, 2020

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves by Madhur Anand

“With the flick of man’s wrist India ink is spilled, and there is no way to predict how much of that dark blue will become blood red,” says Madhur Anand’s father in the opening pages of her book. Almost three-quarters of a century later, Anand, the daughter of two Partition survivors, looks to physics, mathematics, family stories, and poetry to analyze the aftermath of this flicked wrist. “I wanted to calculate the fractal dimension of the Radcliffe line. So I did. It’s X,” she writes.

Her book is a multi-perspective Partition memoir that is itself partitioned. ‘The First Partition’, is written from the perspectives of Anand’s parents, who were both children when their homeland was divided by the Radcliffe line. Each chapter in the first half alternates between her mother’s and father’s voices. When you reach the middle of the book, you flip it over and see that the back cover is a second front cover, and another story emerges. ‘The Second Partition’ is told from Anand’s perspective as the daughter of that generation. Note: The audiobook is narrated by three different actors, which is another way to experience this poly-vocal story.

Winner of Canada’s 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction, this book cannot be easily contained by the partitions of genre or subject. Anand is a scientist, a poet, and the director of The Guelph Institute of Environmental Research, where she nurtures cross-pollination between the arts and sciences. In this formally inventive and expansive memoir, she combines the precision of scientific language with a plurality of possibilities of poetic language to explore trauma and its legacy. 

Anand started to record oral histories of her parents after a health scare with her mother in 2015, when she realized how much she didn’t know about their past and how these stories would be lost otherwise. In 1947, Anand’s mother’s family fled Haripur to cross the new border and arrive in Dehradun. “I know what we are leaving behind,” her mother tells us, and proceeds with a huge inventory of losses. “So why then, when a government official comes to the door one day in late 1947, in Dehradun, asking what we left behind in order to make a retribution claim for Partition, does my father say ‘nothing’?” she wonders.

Her mother falls sick with what they think is typhoid fever from the journey. “Lying in bed, I overhear all the conversations of my relatives. They speak of blood in the river, blood on the trains, and say that even the fruit there has started to taste like blood. Human blood in the blood oranges. Blood has soaked the soil. When you break a branch off a tree, blood comes out.”

Anand’s father’s family had already migrated to Delhi by the time the Radcliffe line was drawn. Early in childhood, he contracted polio, which affected his gait. “Maybe it was because of my limp that I tried to understand the world through asymmetry,” Anand’s father says. The book also is a meditation on these asymmetries, starting with the asymmetry caused by Partition. Anand blends science with history to discuss the unknowable scale and impact of the drawing of this line. Her father, a professor of physics, describes the invention of the transistor, how two points of contact on gold metal, a hair width apart, can create and amplify current. In the future, everyone will have phones and computers. Everyone will be impacted. “That is perhaps one way to think of how many people will be affected by Partition,” he says. 

“Sometimes getting an answer is as simple as weighing a thing before and after evaporation,” he tells us. This book weighs multiple befores and afters: before and after Partition, before and after polio, before and after the death of a parent, before and after marriage, before and after immigration, before and after children. “I can draw a map in this imaginary space between me and the past world,” Anand’s mother says, as she recounts their life before in Haripur, near the Dor River, where her mother always had enough chapatis for everyone, with one left over at the end of the day “reserved for nobody, for nothing. That is how Mother would define abundance if she knew the word in English.”  But after Partition, Anand’s maternal grandfather keeps repeating “I don’t have a home,” and dies perhaps of diabetes, dehydration, or this loss of homeland, and her maternal grandmother feels she is dead too. “I am thirteen, old enough to get a job, old enough to get married, and most importantly old enough to save Mother’s life,” Anand’s mother says, which leads her to join a training course in “life skills” after her father’s death.

We follow Anand’s parents as they navigate pursuing education and later marriage in this post-Partition India, and the trajectory that leads to their immigration to Canada. Her mother grew up in the same town as the writer Ruskin Bond, who was a child at the time of Partition. Years later, Anand will read her mother a Partition migration passage from his novel, The Room of the Roof, to which her mother will respond “But that is not fiction at all.”

The book is as much a Partition story as it is a Canadian Indian immigration one. The family also experiences loss, multiple uprootings, and sorrow on the other side of the globe, compounding their earlier traumas. Anand documents both the racism and the kindnesses her parents experienced in Canada. Not knowing anyone when he arrived at the airport, Anand’s father flips through the phone book until he finds an Indian-sounding name. He calls, and the man who answers picks him up from the airport and provides temporary lodging. Anand’s family returns this kindness to newer immigrants who call them first because their name is alphabetically first in the phone book. 

Talking about the generosity she also received, Anand’s mother relays, “My neighbor, Mrs. Eager, had a sewing machine and allowed me to use it to make blouses. She was very helpful, telling me when butter was on sale for sixty-five cents. Milk is one dollar this week! One day I asked her, ‘How do we get children?’ She said fetus and then I heard her say partition. ‘What do you know about Partition?’ I asked. ‘Parturition, my dear, parturition.’ It means the act of giving birth. The take-home message, she said, was that I should wait ten days after my period for children.” 

“Before I know it, I find myself in a small Canadian village where Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims are neighbors again, like before Partition,” her mother reflects. But she also realizes a different type of segregation in Canada between the White settlers and the Indigenous population, also referred to as ‘Indians.’ “It was strange to see this kind of partitioning in the new country. White separated from Indian. Why could they not live together?” her mother asks.

‘The Second Partition’ is narrated by the “next generation writer, ” a term coined by the author Q.M. Zhang. I had asked Zhang over email how she arrived at this nomenclature. She recalled that her own attempts to reconstruct the past were about trying to figure out how she belonged in the present. “I needed to know what was lost and gained in order for me to be here,” Zhang wrote to me. Zhang also invoked Walter Benjamin who said that “genuine memory must yield an image of the person who remembers.” In Anand’s ‘The Second Partition’, we see this image of the person remembering, of Anand collecting and corroborating these stories from her parents, of wearing her father’s polio shoes, of revisiting places they’ve lived, of navigating silences, and seeking and finding patterns in stories. Sometimes, to access knowledge, she enters through adjacent doors—like asking to read physics papers written by her father’s colleague. “I explain clearly that my father is the nucleus, and I am interested in anything that touches it and radiates out,” she writes. In describing MemoryWorks and the next generation writer to me, Zhang noted, “Each time we reach back for the past, we are always standing somewhere new.” Each reading of this book also brings new meaning and insight. We realize these stories cannot be contained within their partitions. To quote a line from one of Anand’s poems, the book is “the sea in an earthen pot.”

We are introduced to the term apophenia—the ability to see patterns in seemingly unrelated events. It could be a marker of schizophrenia or an aspect of religious delusion, but it can also be a governing principle of poetry. This memoir, like poetry, is governed by association. Anand presents many echoes and patterns that leap across partitions. Take gold for example. We jump from images of refugees fleeing with gold sewn into their clothes, to the image of the gold contact of the transistor, to the contact Anand’s father’s gold wedding ring makes with the tarmac when he falls upon arrival in Canada, to the gold of the mining town of Gerrington where they settle. Or the number Five. We are introduced to the five rivers of Punjab, five tapering stories her mother tells, and a story of five aunties in Canada that Anand shares. Through these five aunties, we learn of suicide attempts, cheating husbands, and homicide. I am reminded of the Muriel Rukeyser’s quote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” Here though, Anand’s book makes me wonder, what would happen if women told the story of their world splitting open? The truth of life would spill over. 

Anand writes how “this coincidence, this apophenia, this spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated phenomena, is addictive.” For a reader, it is also addictive, as we attempt to map the constellation Anand has assembled with her parent’s stories, her own experiences, and the musings of Richard Feynman and Erwin Schrödinger. We try to triangulate—as her family and physicists do—the past, present, and future. “But luck is another word for things we do not understand,” her father says. 

In ‘The First Partition’, Anand’s mother asks, “Do you want to hear aap beeti or jag beeti?” In ‘The Second Partition’, Anand offers her translation: “Which would you prefer to hear? My story or the story of the world?” This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, is the best kind of memoir, where these two stories cannot be partitioned. 

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Website | Bylines

Sangamithra Iyer is a writer, engineer, and environmental planner. Click through for the full bio and contributions.